• Key point 6-12.5. Some courts will supervise church elections to ensure compliance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents, if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.
Church Business Meetings
* A Georgia court ruled that a trial court did not violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom when it intervened in a local church dispute and called a supervised membership meeting to determine the identity of lawful voting members. A church was organized in 1880. It is not incorporated and does not have a written constitution or bylaws. Rather, it is governed by custom and practice, under which church deacons are vested with authority over temporal affairs. In 2001, one of the church’s deacons began questioning the pastor’s handling of church finances because expenses were exceeding income. This controversy soon developed into a dispute over church leadership, and a church meeting was called. The majority of those present at the meeting voted to discharge all five of the church’s deacons. Two of the deacons also were removed from church membership. The deacons denied ever receiving notice that the meeting would address the issue of their termination or their membership, and they questioned the number of actual church members attending the meeting.
The former deacons asked a civil court to restore them to office, and to remove the pastor. They claimed to represent a majority of the church congregation. They produced 57 signatures supporting their contentions that they represented a majority of the congregation and that the majority sought the resignation of the pastor. But the pastor produced over 100 “affidavits” supporting the results of the congregational meeting. These documents stated that a majority of the church had attended the meeting and had voted to remove the deacons from office. The evidence showed, however, that a number of these affidavits were signed by people who were under eighteen, some as young as five years old.
A trial court determined that there was no clear evidence of the number of members belonging to the church, although one witness estimated it at approximately eighty people. The court found that a genuine issue existed as to which of the two competing factions (the deacons’ or the pastor’s group) represented a majority of the congregation. The court then established a procedure for holding an election to resolve this issue, in which the church members were asked to vote either for a slate of representatives proposed by the former deacons, or a slate of representatives proposed by the pastor. The representatives receiving the majority of votes would be authorized to have use and possession of church property. In conjunction with the election, the deacons’ attorney submitted a list reflecting that the church had over 200 qualified voting members, and the trial court approved that list as the role of eligible voters.
The election was conducted, and the deacon’s representatives received 69 of the 123 ballots cast, while the pastor’s representatives received 51 votes (three votes were disqualified). The court entered an order granting the deacons possession and authority over church property. The pastor appealed.
The pastor claimed that the trial court violated the first amendment to the United States Constitution when it failed to dismiss the deacons’ complaint. The appeals court disagreed, quoting from a 1969 Supreme Court ruling: “The first amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes. It is obvious, however, that not every civil court decision as to property claimed by a religious organization jeopardizes values protected by the first amendment. Civil courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property.” Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969).
The Georgia court concluded, “The trial court was presented with a property dispute, with the pastor and the group of deacons both claiming control over church property and funds. Thus, the sole issue before the trial court was to determine whether the pastor or the deacons represented the majority of church members.” Such a determination was not barred by the first amendment.
The pastor also claimed that the deacons’ list of members did not bar the trial court from addressing the identity of voting members. The court disagreed, “[The deacons’ list] contained 203 names, but only around 60 of the pastor’s affiants can be readily identified on the membership roster, and not all of them attended the [original] meeting. Moreover, only around 48 of the individuals who signed their support for the deacons appear on the membership list. Thus, the evidence failed to establish that either group had support from a clear majority of the church membership.”
The pastor also alleged that the trial court erred in mandating the procedures for the election. He asserts that by doing so, the trial court stepped impermissibly into the areas of “faith, teaching, doctrine, and discipline of the church.” The appeals court disagreed, noting that a civil court “is not forbidden to consider the composition of the church membership for the limited purpose of determining standing to bring a claim on behalf of the church membership. Thus, courts are authorized to determine which of two disputing factions represents the majority of a church membership …. In this case, the trial court could not determine from the evidence presented by the parties which faction had majority support to control the church property. And the trial court designed the election in this case for the sole purpose of resolving that issue. The rules set by the court for holding the election were intended to insure the fairness of the process and were justified by the prior conduct of the two factions.”
The court also noted that the trial court’s intervention was warranted because of evidence that the original congregational meeting (at which the deacons were dismissed) may have been manipulated to exclude the deacons and their supporters. Further, it appeared that nonmembers may have been allowed to cast votes.
The court concluded, “The trial court did not exceed its authority, as it limited the election procedures to resolving the issue of which faction represented the majority, the only proper question before the court. Moreover, the election called for majority rule, which was in compliance with church practice and the law governing congregational churches.”
Application. This case illustrates an important point. While the civil courts generally refrain from intervening in internal church disputes regarding governance issues, there are some limited exceptions. As this case shows, some courts are willing to intervene in internal church disputes in order to call a special meeting to identify lawful voting members, so long as they can do so without any inquiry into church doctrine. Howard v. Johnson, 592 S.E.2d 93 (Ga. App. 2003).
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